Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux has traveled extensively and written books on five of the seven continents, missing only Australia and Antarctica. Theroux’s first book, “The Great Railway Bazaar” (1975), details a 4-month journey from London through Europe, the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia, and his return home on the Trans-Siberian Railway. Subsequent books have described travel by train from Boston to the southern tip of South America (“The Old Patagonian Express” ), by foot around the coast of England (“The Kingdom by the Sea” ), and by a multitude of conveyances from Cairo to South Africa (“Dark Star Safari” ).
Theroux’s most recent book, “On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey,” is his account of a months-long unaccompanied road trip along the full extent of the U.S.-Mexican border from San Ysidro, California to McAllen, Texas where he crossed into Mexico.
After meeting numerous Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented, Theroux writes, “Knowing the risks that migrants took emboldened me, and hearing nothing but ignorant opinion about Mexicans…I decided to take a trip [into] Mexico. I studied the map. I had no status except my age, but in a country where the old are respected, that was enough−more than enough.”
Theroux’s journey took him from the drug-cartel controlled northern border city of Reynosa through the heart of Mexico to its capital, Mexico City, where he conducted a writing seminar for local authors. From the capital he ventured farther south to the border states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, states whose inhabitants live at a level of poverty greater than that of Kenya or Bangladesh.
In the southern border states he met and interviewed members of the Zapatistas, a shadow government formed to provide basic services that the federal government is unable or unwilling to deliver; clean water, education, basic healthcare. And it was in these states that Theroux developed an appreciation for the threads that run through the national character of Mexico; deep regard for the importance of family, a resigned acceptance of the nature of life and a recognition and acceptance of the certainty of death.
As in his previous work Theroux’s descriptive talents for both terrain and human interaction hold the reader’s attention. But when he veers into polemic, as he does in this book and in his last African book, “Last Train to Zona Verde (2013) Theroux can challenge the reader’s resolve.
Readers who are contemplating travel to Mexico will find in this book equal measures of encouragement and caution. Mexico has a deep, rich, and active culture of literature, music and art. But the country also has serious problems with corruption and crime that can pose hazards for all but the most vigilant of visitors. Theroux’s book offers an honest and realistic description of both sides of the coin.
At 78 years of age Theroux admits that he may not have a great deal more travel in him. “On the Plain of Snakes,” should it be his last major work, is a fitting capstone to a long and illustrious literary career.